Back before the days when trashy faux celebrities from tawdry reality shows merited magazine covers and “gangsta” rappers postured and pretended to be killers, there was once a romanticized fascination with actual killers with names like “Baby Face” and “Pretty Boy.”
John Dillinger needed no infantalized nickname. He robbed at least 24 banks and killed several people, including police officers. But he had a rakish audacity and an innate populism that endeared him to people during the depths of the Depression. “I’m not here for your money,” he says to one bank customer who had the bad luck to be there during a robbery. “I’m here for the bank’s money.”
Dillinger became the most wanted man in America by law enforcement authorities and helped inspire the enactment of new federal laws and increases in budget and authority for the FBI. His story, ended when he was gunned down by the FBI coming out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago, has been the subject of many books and movies, and now this latest starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Christian Bale as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, and directed by Michael Mann (“Miami Vice,” “Collateral”).
In this diligent but somehow chilly and uninvolving retelling of the story the details seems right and Depp delivers a performance of enormous depth, maturity, and appeal. Bale, however, is a cipher as Pervis, leaving the story unbalanced.
It’s a forest and trees problem. The details are all careful and often arresting, but there’s no real sense of what the movie’s overall story is or why it is being told. We know how it will end, indeed we are there to see the big shootout, but that removes much of the suspense. Depp is fascinating as always but Dillinger himself is not all that interesting. Is he a sociopath? Is it desperation or rebellion? The focus on just the last portion of his short life does not give us enough of a clue. When he has the inevitable crime movie scene with Dillinger and his devoted girlfriend (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard as a Depression-era Bess the landlord’s daughter), dreaming of escaping to a peaceful life, it is unconnected to anything about him we have seen before. What do we learn from this violent man’s devotion to one woman? He is impulsive but cagey, shrewd about today but not about next week, cocky but fatalistic.
And the movie fails to connect in any meaningful way to the parallels in today’s world. It’s a hat movie, pretty good but nothing more.
Once again, we now have a population that might secretly side with someone who robs banks, feeling that it is a just reversal of what the banks have done to us. But these days, we don’t glamorize criminals any more. We’re too busy keeping up with Jon and Kate.